Black Bloc and Occupy Oakland
[UPDATE From the comments, I understand that black bloc tactics are the subject of "intense discussion" in Oakland, and so they should be. It would be helpful if somebody would find and post twitter feeds/reporting/transcripts of these discussions so we can get some unfiltered notion of what's going on. Readers? Clue stick to violence/vandalism proponents: A child of six knows that the 1% are violent, and that the police can be violent, too. So, please go explain that to a child of five, mkay? The issue is how tactics bring the Occupations success, and the burden is on violence/vandalism advocates to show how that happens. --lambert]
I agree with Lambert's comment in his Occupy Oakland posting - it feels that we're reaching some sort of inflection point. In regard to this - the topic of black bloc involvement in Occupy Oakland leaves me feeling increasingly disturbed. Black bloc may be less peripheral than I'd earlier assumed.
It appears that the vast majority of people partipitating in Occupy Oakland events comdemn the black block actions. Tens of thousand participated in the demonstrations (I've seen estimates ranging from 7000 to over 40,000 participants). The most common estimate for the number of black bloc people involved is only about 200 - obviously, a tiny minority.
But there appears to actually be a serious split among the core occupiers and in the general assembly regarding black bloc and use of violence/vandalism. I suppose this is not necessarily surprising. It makes sense that people who are able/willing to indefinately camp out under difficult conditions and constant threat of police raid, and those who are able/willing to consistently attend long GA meetings, may have different demographics and more radicalized beliefs than people who are more sporadically involved. I've seen this at prior occupations I've been involved with (e.g. the 1985 WI Capitol apartheid-divestment occupation comes to mind).
It seems that a large fraction of the Occupy Oakland GA attendees are unwilling to renounce violence/vandalism as a tactic. I don't think this reflects the majority of attendees (many are passionately opposed to black bloc tactics), but it's apparently not a small minority either. See the feed from Friday's Occupy Oakland GA - scroll to about the 32:30 mark for the speakers dicussing this, and listen to the crowd reponse. Also, here's a posting from a GA attendee summarizing discussion of this topic.
On Thursday, people from the Occupy Oakland media committe released a statement comdemning the vandalism/violence. I think this contributed to a sharp positive shift in the tone of media coverage later on Thursday. However, the actions of the media working group led to heated internal arguments at the OO camp, and another statement was released Thursday night that they could not take an official positions until Friday's GA. AP article:
"On Thursday afternoon, representatives from the Occupy Oakland media committee read a statement saying participants supported the goal of reclaiming empty buildings to serve the public but regretted that their daylong downtown demonstration was marred by an 'autonomous' group. 'It is unfortunate that the unprecedented mobilization and engagement of tens of thousands of our neighborhood in this beautiful Oakland city should be marred by broken windows and graffiti,' Laura Long said, reading the statement. 'Occupy Oakland does not advocate violence and has no interest in supporting actions that endanger the community and possibilities that it has worked to build.' The group released a statement Thursday night saying it doesn't support vandalism but would not take an official position until Friday's night 'General Assembly' meeting."
However, Friday's GA did not repudiate the black bloc tactics. Also, apparently previous proposals at OO GA meetings to renounce violence/vandalism have been rejected.
From postings by OO participants at various sites/forums, several lines of thought seem to be contributing to tolerance of black bloc. I see a lot of posts arguing that destruction of property is not violence - and this position seems common among certain anarchists, even if they're not actively in agreement with use of black bloc tactics currently. Some are arguing that since this movement is nascent, now is not the time for violence since it would alienate the mainstream - but that they would support its use once events have advanced sufficiently. Others more fundamentally disagree with the use of violence/vandalism, but are not willing to oppose/condemn black bloc since
that would be siding with the "enemy" over other protesters. I also see a lot of condemnation of those who intervened to stop black bloc vandalism on Wednesday (e.g. at Whole Foods) - they're being referred to as "peace police", and there seems to be particularly strong anger against those who tried to physically restrain or physically block the black bloc individuals (even some commenters who appear relatively unsupportive of black bloc are condemning "peace police" actions as coercive and as failing to respect "diversity of tactics").
Some of the proposals passed at previous OO GA meetings seem to have opened the door to the events of early Thursday morning. See here for a list of decisions passed as of October 31. Number 4 on the list is "diversity of tactics".
For example, during marches: when confronted by police, some people may want to attempt to have calm conversations with them, urging them to be non-violent. some people may want to sit down in front of lines of police. some people may want to express their anger by yelling at the police. some people may want to attempt to remove police barriers. some people may want to disrupt traffic or banks. some people may prefer to remain on the sidewalk. We should be tolerant of each other’s approaches and respect different forms of protest, while being aware of our privilege or lack of it, especially when engaging with the police.
A common argument made by black bloc supporters (in Oakland and at prior demonstrations in Europe and Canada) is that trying to prevent/stop/condemn black bloc actions is failing to respect "diversity of tactics". A particularly good discussion of "diversity of tactics" in the context of OWS can be found here. Yet another interesting essay on this topic "is meant to undermine the notion that 'respecting diversity of tactics' should be the default position. Instead, I assert that the default position should be to regard every tactic with a critical eye in order to determine whether it effectively attains our goals."
Other relevant Oakland GA decisions include "Encourage autonomous actions":
In order to keep the GA from being bogged down, and in order to allow for diversity of tactics, actions other than major events (like the General Strike) should be announced as actions rather than brought forward as proposals to be voted on.
And also "Declaration of Solidarity with Neighborhood Reclamations":
Occupy Oakland, in solidarity with the Occupy movement and with the local community, has established the principle of claiming for open use the open space that has been kept from us. We are committed to helping this practice continue and grow. Here in Oakland, thousands of buildings owned by city, banks, and corporations stand idle and abandoned. At the same time social services such as child and healthcare, education, libraries and community spaces are being defunded and eliminated. Occupy Oakland supports the efforts of people in all Oakland neighborhoods to reclaim abandoned properties for use to meet their own immediate needs. Such spaces are already being occupied and squatted unofficially by the dispossessed, the marginalized, by many of the very people who have joined together here in Oscar Grant Plaza to make this a powerful and diverse movement. We commit to providing political and material support to neighborhood reclamations, and supporting them in the face of eviction threats or police harassment. In solidarity with the global occupation movement, we encourage the transformation of abandoned spaces into resource centers toward meeting urgent community needs that the current economic system cannot and
will not provide.
Some have argued that the occupation of the Traveler's Aid Society building was an improper action, since it wasn't specifically approved at the Oakland GA. However, though it seems to have been poorly planned/executed, the GA decisions noted above seem to provide all authorization needed.
The level of involvment of black bloc in the building occupation is unclear to me. A reporter noted that many of the people entering the building were dressed in black and wearing bandanas. However, that isn't what I saw in video from inside the building (at least when the video was made, few of the occupiers were dressed in black and I didn't notice any wearing bandanas). By all accounts, it seems that those who built the barricades outside (and later set fire to them) were black bloc. Here's a psuedonymous account written by people who appear to be at least affiliated with black bloc (though theire exact relationship is not clear). Also, here's a video of black bloc types scuffling with a protester who's trying to extinguish the barricade fires.
Multiple accounts seem to indicate that the "Anti-Capitalist" march that vandalized Whole Foods and other buildings earlier in the day was led by a group of black bloc, and that they may have been primary organizers of that march. Though it also appears that few of the ~1500 people originally participating in that march were aware of this (and some in the march tried to stop the vandalism and divert the march). One anarchist (apparently sympathetic to black bloc) described events thus:
"the march at which the vandalism took place was a specifically anarchist anti capitalist march. There were other marches scheduled for the peace police, but they tried to coopt the anarchist march (led by a 60 person black bloc) with their message of peace and non violence. I was frustrated with the calls to forcibly unmask the black bloc and anyone engaging in vandalism and with the level of violence the 'nonviolent' contingent was perpetrating against the property destroyers. I was back on the sidelines observing yesterday and I couldn't believe the shit the peace police were saying."
One interesting posting I saw (among other things, it implies some possibility of engagement with the black bloc) was the following:
Vico: "Now, I have been something of an anarchist myself. I regularly attend the Bay Area anarchist book fair at the county fair building in Golden Gate Park. This is arguably the most important anarchist event of the year on the West Coast. As an activist, I have worked with the Anarchist Black Bloc at events over the past 12 years. I have been present for negotiations between the Black Bloc and other ad hoc coalition members at more than one protest. The subject was usually regarding whether or not property destruction was a sound protest tactic.
In the past, at every protest meeting I have been to, the Black Bloc has agreed to not participate in property destruction during the peaceful large protest - so that the public does not get a mixed message. Also, I have never seen or heard of an anarchist attacking a fellow protester, as we see happen several times on these videos. They might attack police but not other protesters en mass. Even if this has happened before, it seems highly unlikely that it would happen multiple times within just a few minutes.
It is true that anarchists do participate in property destruction as a tactic. However, they generally agree to not do this at peaceful protests. Also, it is impossible for me to believe that so many anarchists would violently attack other protestors. Maybe one or two, but this many does not seem right. In my experience this would be totally out of character. Also, anarchists that I have known may support property destruction as a useful tactic but are on the whole nonviolent."
I've looked about pretty extensively online to find any examples of approaches that proved successful in dealing with black bloc (in Europe, Canada, or the U.S.). Essentially, I found nothing. Sometimes (as Vico notes above), extended dialogue can dissuade them from disrupting otherwise peaceful demonstrations. Though this seems to be difficult given their typical vanguardist thinking and intractability.
Sometimes, if their numbers are small and there's an overwhelming concensus among other protesters to keep things peaceful, and a willingness to confront black bloc members, they will back down. But the latter tactic often only works at a specific time and location - black bloc will continue vandalism/violence at the event at another location or time, where the ratio is shifted in their favor. It seems that's basically what happened in Oakland. Though the images and statements of other protesters challenging, preventing, and denouncing black bloc actions (and assisting in the cleanup) seems to have somewhat ameliorated the damage to the public's perceptions of Occupy. If anyone is aware of any approaches that have worked empirically (in diminishing/neutralizing/dissuading black bloc), it would be great to hear about this.
A few weeks ago, George Lakoff argued for a "moral framing" of Occupy (and I can't state my agreement strongly enough). Vandalism/violence eviscerates that possibility. As Tatiana stated in a posting on the events of Thusday morning:
"We can only win against their limp morality, their shriveled integrity, and their flaccid principles. And we win by being morally strong, impeccable in our integrity and holding fast to wise and courageous principles of service and compassion. Service to the community. We win by expressing our morality, integrity and principles with clarity and grace."
I've seen many people arguing that property damage (smashing windows, etc.) is not violence, since people aren't directly injured. I remember internally debating the "does property damage = violence" question when I was a young activist. At this point, my reaction is just - spare me the BS rationalization.
As commenter Bobobo says:
"I mean, they’re arguing over the notion that breaking someone’s window is not a violent action because a window is not a person, and thus has no feelings, and so cannot even begin to articulate its own breaking, let alone perceive such a thing as violence. That is just a semantic game that ignores the fact that the reason the window is there in the first place is that people are in the world, and some of them own a window that they really need to have, and others recognize this fact and so perceive the breaking of someone else’s property to be very similar to assaulting that person themselves because it undermines their livelihood and drains resources, and so feel upset when they see people breaking other people’s windows."
When someone's window is broken, they feel DISTRESS and FEAR. Emotional pain is still pain - it's still injury. (And I actually do believe the line "An injury to one is an injury to all"). Someone has to clean up the mess. Breaking windows and looting art from an art gallery collective means that someone (who is probably not rich) is losing livelihood. People have to replace stuff that's been destroyed (and may not be able to afford to). The provocation of cops means that a lot of innocent people get arrested, beaten, and injured. And even though Oakland police seem to habitually exaggerate what was thrown at them, there are credible accounts from protesters that at least some M80s were thrown - don't tell me that an M80 can't cause serious injury. And sparks and flaming debris from the types of fires that were set can fairly readily set roof shingles on fire (that's how fires often spread from one building to another).
Yes, on the topic of property destruction, one can quibble about certain details. By several accounts, some black bloc folks were at the forefront of dismanting the fence that had been set up to prevent reoccupation of Frank Ogawa plaza. But few would really consider this property destruction. Personally, given the right circumstances, I wouldn't condemn the Earth First tactic of putting abrasive in the lubricating oil of heavy machinery that's about to be used to raze an ancient Sequoia forest. But that's a far different cry from stupid "symbolic" random destruction (smashing of windows, damaging storefronts, setting of fires, etc.) that harms average people.
I should mention that I think it is likely that none of the violence would have happened were it not for police actions in Oakland (events starting with the camp raid). For Wednesay/Thursday, OPD again made a call for assistance to neighboring police departments and a massive raid was mounted on the occupied Traveler's Aid building. When hundreds of police clad in riot gear made their appearance in the nighborhood, barricades were built, and events devolved. OPD actions just continue to radicalize and inflame, increasing the appeal of black bloc and fostering an intractible situation. And perhaps not everyone has heard about the second Iraq War veteran injured by OPD - arrested while walking home, severely beaten, spleen ruptured, and kept incarcerated while in agony with no adequate medical attention for a day.
Bungalowkitchens - I'd love on-the-ground commentary from you, or from others you know in Oakland, about attitutes (vis-a-vis black bloc) in the Occupy Oakland camp and GA.